Dinner Is Served


Six weeks ago, I added a new thread to my blog to give voice to the rich lore resulting from my parents’ 36 years as Vermont innkeepers. There’s only 62 weeks until their expected retirement, so it’s time to get cracking on documenting these stories.

First, I want to explain my process. I rely on a combination of my own memories growing up in the inn and recollections of my mother’s re-telling of events to come up with the subject for each post. Then, I interview my parents, usually over dinner, to fact check my memory, gain more context, and add dimension to each story. At last Sunday’s dinner, a few questions about serving dinner at the inn yielded so much material that this post only includes stories from the first year.

CFI Menu Cards and Ads

(Above: Saved menu notes and weekly newspaper ads from the inn’s first year of serving dinner to the general public.)

In a previous post, I explained that my parents started renovating the property that became the Combes Family Inn in March 1978 and we hosted our first inn guests that August. After working out some kinks in the rooms business and making additional renovations, the three innkeepers were finally ready to serve dinner to guests by October. In the inn-keeping world, it is much more prestigious to serve dinner, in addition to offering bed and breakfast (“B&B”). As my mom explained: “Before moving to Vermont to become an innkeeper with us, your Aunt Nancy had taken a commercial cooking class on Long Island, so we thought we were hot shit.”

The very first dinner guest of the Combes Family Inn was a gentleman in his 80’s who booked a week by himself during the October foliage season. The first night of his stay, Aunt Nancy decided to make a recipe from her cooking class, Beef Rouladen in Burgundy Sauce.  “It came out so rich,” my mom recalls, “we thought we had killed him.”

Beef Rolade

(Above: My Aunt Nancy’s Professional Chef Cook Book, open to the page with the recipe she and my mother served their first dinner guest.)

The following month, the inn-keepers were getting ready to start preparations for Thanksgiving dinner and discovered that they had run out of propane and couldn’t light the stove. My dad frantically tracked down the guy at the local gas company. Unfortunately, after listening to my dad’s sob story about needing to cook for a house full of people, he replied: “I have my own problems.”

Undeterred, Dad made a few more calls and came up with a plan. He jumped in his Blazer with the turkey and headed down to our friend Jerry’s restaurant, the Winchester. Jerry had cranked up his stove to 500 degrees and proceeded to cook our turkey for the hour that it took my father to drive to and from Chester, where he picked up a hand-held drum of propane, something he wasn’t even sure was legal.  

In spite of the drama, Mom swears it was the best tasting turkey they’ve ever served.

Bill’s Super Quick Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe

Unstuffed 20-pound turkey.
Salt and pepper rubbed inside.
Place in turkey roasting pan with an inch of water.
Cook at 500 degrees for one hour.

The day after Thanksgiving, Dad made two phone calls. First, he called a different propane company to promptly switch-over the inn’s service. Second, he called the original company and left the following message: “This is Bill Combes from the Combes Family Inn. I’m disconnecting my service. Now, my problems are your problems.”

What happened that New Year’s Eve is a story I remember like it was yesterday. We had a large group of 5 or 6 Japanese families who stayed at our inn, while they were skiing at Okemo Mountain. My Mom, Dad, and Aunt Nancy put together this impressive menu: roast beef, twice baked potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, glazed carrots, home-baked bread, and chocolate mousse.

When Dad took the beef out of the oven to get drippings to make the Yorkshire pudding, there were no drippings and the beef looked like a huge leather shoe. That’s when he discovered that he had bought a pre-cooked roast beef (usually used to slice off luncheon meat) and not a raw beef slab. Lacking other alternatives, they reluctantly served the beef, carrots, bread and potatoes, without the Yorkshire pudding. The guests were so polite that nearly every one of them asked for seconds. I am the only member of my family who entertains the possibility that our Japanese guests actually liked the beef.

Bill’s Yorkshire Pudding Recipe

Eggs, whole 20.
Milk 2 qt.
Bread Flour 2 lb.
Salt 1 oz.
Butter, melted 24 oz.
Drippings from Roast Beef (fat only) 24 oz.

Break eggs in mixing bowl; beat well. Add milk; mix well. Add flour and salt; beat until smooth. Beat in melted butter.

Place 12 oz. drippings in each of 2 15- x 18-in baking pans. Place pans on range and when smoking hot, divide batter evenly between pans.

Place pans in 375 degree oven on shelf in bottom half. Do not open door for 25 minutes; total cooking time, 35-40 min. Remove from oven and drain excess fat by tipping pan. Cut in squares to serve, 25 portions per pan.

The following summer, my parents and Aunt Nancy decided to serve dinners to the general public, in order to generate cash flow to help keep the business going through the slower summer season.  I should explain that the Combes Family Inn has always had one seating each night for dinner (7pm Thursday through Saturday and 5pm Sunday) and serves the same three course meal to each guest, unless there is a prearranged special request. The menu changes nightly.

The innkeepers promoted their new dinner service throughout 1979 and 1980 with ads in the local weekly paper which included the dinner menu for the three course meal planned for that Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, as well as a Sunday buffet. Each night, the meal was $5.95 complete with dessert and coffee. BYOB.

One night, they had 12 reservations for outside diners. The menu included stuffed pork chops with homemade apple sauce, corn chowder, scalloped potatoes, green beans, and apple crisp. At about ten minutes before 7pm, Mom was just about to go into the sitting room to chat with the guests before ringing the dinner bell, when she checked the progress of her pork chops and discovered that she had never turned the oven on. Instead of grabbing the dinner bell, she cranked the oven up to 450 and went into the sitting room and said “Good evening, I’m Ruth Combes, the innkeeper. Dinner’s going to be a few more minutes.”

Ruth’s Apple Sauce Recipe

5 lbs regular Macintosh apples.
1/4 c. water, apple cider, or apple juice.
1 T lemon juice.
1/2 c. brown sugar.
Cinnamon (to taste).

Slice apples. Do not peel or remove cores. Put apples, sugar, and liquid in large covered pot and cook over medium flame for about 1/2 hour or until apples are tender. Put apple mixture through food mill (this is a great kitchen gadget, especially for pureeing soups and vegetables). Add lemon juice and cinnamon.

It may not seem like it based on the stories I’ve told above. However, my parents are both excellent cooks. And, needless-to-say, dining at the Combes Family Inn is a truly one of a kind experience. 


Tamarind and Sticky Rice


One of the most popular restaurants in Luang Prabang is called Tamarind: A Taste for Laos (http://www.tamarindlaos.com/). It’s just a few doors down from the guest house where we stayed and it was always packed for both lunch and dinner. This was the case even during the “shoulder season” of our visit. In fact, it was the only place so busy that reservations were required. Ange had really done her homework before our trip and discovered that Tamarind also runs a day-long cooking class (http://www.tamarindlaos.com/cooking-school/).

Each day of our reunion trip back to Asia was really special to me for different reasons. However, the Tamarind cooking class enabled me to understand Laos and the Lao people on a deeper level, so much so that I expect it will leave a life-long impression.

The rice paddies along the Mekong River basin that I wrote about in my last blog (https://sharoncombesfarr.com/2014/03/11/the-mighty-mekong/) grow a special kind of rice called “sticky rice,” known elsewhere as “glutinous rice.” I thought sticky rice became so because of how it is cooked. That is not the case. It is actually a unique strain of rice and it is the driving force behind Lao cuisine.


Relying on sticky as opposed to regular white rice means that many Lao foods are dips and not soupy or saucy — unlike Thai curries, for example. Laotians use three or four fingers to ball up the sticky rice and either dip it into pastes or dips or push meats and vegetables onto the sticky rice to eat it. Soupy dishes just won’t work for this and chop sticks are not conducive to eating it either.

Another interesting thing about Lao cuisine is how it is made and cooked. They do not need stoves or even woks. The four necessary implements for making Lao dishes are: fire — like a BBQ pit or any other open flame, a pot, a steaming cone, and a deep mortar and pestle set. Barbecued meats are very prevalent, as are steamed dishes made in little bamboo leaf packets to keep the meat moist and flavorful.
Because the Mekong provides great soil, seemingly unlimited varieties or fruits and vegetables are available as ingredients to the cuisine. A few of the most prevalent flavors are tamarind (this is a fruit that tastes most similar to fig), small eggplants, lemongrass, Lao mint, and Lao lime. To give us an impression of the endless variations for ingredients, we began our cooking class at Luang Prabang’s morning market. As with all cuisines, starting with fresh local ingredients is fundamental.


In terms of meats, Mekong River fish (some have described this as a type of catfish and others, as like tilapia), pork, chicken, and water buffalo are the most common. I personally found the fish and the water buffalo to be the tastiest.

In my day-long cooking class, I learned how to prepare sticky rice, and to make and cook four traditional Lao dishes: eggplant dip, buffalo laap, fish mak, and chicken stuffed lemongrass. The actual meal I made and ate is pictured below:


Online, I found similar recipes to what we were taught fairly easily. A version of Lao eggplant dip can be found here: http://avocadopesto.com/2013/04/04/lao-eggplant-dip-jeow-mak-keua/. Here’s a great laap recipe from Epicurious: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Chicken-Laap-102260. This is an American adaptation of fish mak which uses aluminum foil instead of a banana leaf to make the pouch: http://nanthavongdouangsyfood1.blogspot.com/2012/12/mok-bha-lao-style-spicy-steamed-fish.html. And, finally, here’s a great chicken stuffed lemongrass recipe that includes a ton of great photos: http://avocadopesto.com/2013/04/07/chicken-stuffed-lemongrass/.

Knowing how to make the laap recipe is something that is probably going to change my life. It enables an endless and flavorful variety of healthy meals made from fresh herbs, vegetables, and ground meats that I expect to serve either as one dish salad-like meals or as lettuce wraps. I cannot wait to try it at home. I also cannot wait to show my husband a trick for cutting and squeezing limes.

If you also want to try cooking Lao cuisine at home, these are the best links I found around the Web:

1. http://www.tamarindlaos.com/about-lao-food/
2. http://www.sbs.com.au/food/cuisine/lao
3. http://www.tourismlaos.org/show.php?Cont_ID=9

But, better yet, get over to Luang Prabang at take the Tamarind cooking class yourself. You will not be disappointed.